Representative Andy Harris (R–MD)

Representative Andy Harris (R–MD)

Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Maryland congressman in running to head NIH?

Representative Andy Harris (R–MD), an anesthesiologist who has shown a keen interest in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) while in Congress, has put his hat in the ring for NIH director in the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, he told ScienceInsider today. Harris says he knows that some biomedical scientists would view him as a controversial choice, but argues that his blend of research and political experience would make him a good advocate for addressing NIH’s flaws and for growing the agency’s budget in a time of fiscal restraint.

“I have conducted both clinical research and basic science research. And I have the background in the political arena to understand how funding occurs, how policies can change in new directions, and how reform can be accomplished,” says Harris, a fiscal and social conservative representing eastern Maryland.

There will be people in the scientific community who view reformers as something to be wary about.

Andy Harris

Harris says he has spoken with the Trump transition team about his interest in NIH and that Representative Tom Price (R–GA), whom Trump has tapped to head the Department of Health of Human Services, NIH’s parent agency, is also aware of his desire to be considered for the NIH directorship.

Harris was once a co-investigator on NIH-funded research as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He was elected to the Maryland Senate in 1998 and to the House of Representatives in 2011. As a member of the House spending panel that funds NIH and one of the lawmakers who shaped the 21st Century Cures biomedical innovation bill, he has pushed for policy changes at the agency, such as requiring it to develop an overarching strategic plan.

Harris’s pet issue has been the plight of young investigators, who receive their first NIH research grant at an average age of 42. But some of his proposals have been fiercely opposed by the scientific community, who say they are not the right way to address the problem and could hurt mid- and late-career scientists. One Harris proposal would require NIH to find ways to lower the average age at first grant by 4 years, to 38, but the idea has not gone anywhere. And a provision in an early version of Cures that would have created a pot of money specifically for new investigators was eventually watered down to an initiative within the director’s office to oversee programs aimed at young researchers.

Harris says that as NIH director, “I'd build on what 21st Century Cures started but use the position of the director to push these ideas even further.” That includes also shifting more of the agency’s research funding to diseases that exact a high financial toll on society, such as Alzheimer’s. Although that idea also is controversial, Harris says future funding increases for NIH will depend on the “argument that more funding is a good investment because of the potential return to the federal budget,” he says.

Harris acknowledges that he would be a controversial choice to head NIH. “There will be people in the scientific community who view reformers as something to be wary about. There will be others in the scientific community who view problems such as the relative neglect of young investigators as an immediate problem that needs to be solved,” he says.

Some Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, want the Trump transition team to keep current NIH Director Francis Collins on for another 4 years, according to a report today in The Hill Extra. Harris says he’s a Collins fan, too: “He's done an excellent job. It's going to be a decision between the new administration and Dr. Collins but I have only the highest praise for Dr. Collins.”

Rumors about Harris as a possible NIH pick have been circulating in the research community for days, to mixed reactions. Some prominent scientists and lobbyists who preferred not to be quoted by name said he would be a disaster for NIH; but others said he could be better than other alternatives. Tony Mazzaschi, a longtime NIH watcher who is now senior director for policy and research at the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health in Washington, D.C., praises Harris as “a respected voice on health care matters with his GOP colleagues” and someone who “is knowledgeable about academic public health and academic medicine given his long association with Johns Hopkins.”

Still, Mazzaschi adds, Harris “would be an out-of-the-box choice as NIH director given his political background and that he doesn't have a track record as a research visionary or as the leader of a major research enterprise.”

Some researchers are concerned about how Harris might approach human embryonic stem cell research. In 2005, when Harris was a member of the Maryland legislature, he led an ultimately unsuccessful effort to derail legislation creating a state stem cell research fund. In the end, Maryland in 2006 became one of the first four states to establish such a fund.

Harris’s interest in the NIH directorship was first reported by CQ Roll Call earlier today.

Update, 12/2/2016: Information on Harris' opposition to Maryland's stem cell research fund has been added to the story.